Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tetzaveh 2

They say that clothes make a man, but it is no less true that the man makes the clothes. This week’s Torah reading deals primarily with the making of the garments for Aharon, and all subsequent Cohanim Gadolim. The garments are described as L’Chavod U’L’Tifaret, “for glory and splendour”. They were fashioned out of elaborate threads and gold, with precious jewels upon the shoulder pads and the breast plates. As the representative of G-d, and the agent for effecting the atonement for the nation, the Cohen Gadol has to be an imposing figure, both spiritually and physically. The Talmud (Yoma 18a) states that the Cohen Gadol has to be greater than the other Cohanim in strength, beauty, wisdom and wealth, and if he is does not have wealth the other Cohanim must make him wealthy from their own pockets.

There is a discussion in the Talmud as to whether the Cohanim are the emissaries of G-d or of the people. On the one hand they offer the sacrifices on behalf of the people, and perform all the Temple services on their behalf; on the other hand they eat some of the sacrifices, and they have special laws that set them apart from the rest of the population. The Cohen Gadol is certainly both of these, the ultimate representative of the people when he enters into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to seek atonement for the nation, and G-d’s messenger when he returns from within the Holy of Holies to show the crimson thread which has turned white as a sign of G-d’s forgiveness. We say in Mussaf on Yom Kippur: Thus would he [the Cohen Gadol] say, “I beseech of You G-d, I have erred, been iniquitous, and wilfully sinned before You, I and my household and the children of Aharon… Your people, the Family of Israel”. At this point the Cohen Gadol is the representative of the nation. Then we say “How majestic was the Cohen Gadol as he left the Holy of Holies… Like the Majesty in which the Creator clothed the creatures - was the appearance of the Cohen Gadol.” He has become G-d’s representative, symbolising the atonement which G-d has granted to His nation.

The beautiful and ornate garments which the Cohen Gadol wears as he performs the services are necessary to show the people both the splendour of their representative, and to show the heavenly beauty of G-d’s representative. However, when worn by someone who is not worthy of being the Cohen Gadol, the garments transform from being the height of spirituality to the most base, physical excesses of opulence. The Talmud (Megillah 12a) learns from the opening of Megillat Esther that King Achashverosh had taken the raiment of the Cohen Gadol and was wearing them at his feast which was designed to show his wealth and might, and to celebrate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The text states that he displayed “Yakar Tiferet Gedulato”, “The splendour of his excellent majesty”. The word Tiferet is used to describe the clothes of the Cohen Gadol, which indicates to us that it was those that Achashverosh was wearing.

The result of Achashverosh’s wearing the garments was not his spiritual elevation, but the degradation of himself and his wife through clothing. In his drunken stupor Achashverosh ordered Vashti to appear before the assembled guests wearing only her royal crown. When she refused to be seen naked in public, Achashverosh had her put to death. By misusing the holy garments, Achashverosh was ultimately shamed and punished.

The Malbim explains the difference between the two adjectives Chavod (glory) and Yakar (excellent), which are the words describing the manner in which the Cohen Gadol wears the holy garments, contrasted with how Achashverosh wore them. Malbim (Ya’ir Or, Ot yud, 10) says that Yakar refers to rarity and preciousness of an object, whereas Chavod describes its value in terms of spiritual elevation. For example gold is Yakar, but it does not have Chavod, but a wise sage has Chavod even though not necessarily Yakar. King Achashverosh saw the garments as a precious commodity, and was showing off the wealth that he had looted. However this external pride caused him to become humbled. The Cohen Gadol wears the clothes to show his spiritual level, and self perfection as representative of both the congregation and G-d.

Of course, even the office of Cohen Gadol was open to abuse, and the lure of wealth became a factor in the appointment of the Cohen Gadol in the times of the Second Temple, as the Talmud (Yoma 18a) states: Rabbi Asi said “Two barrels of silver coins were given to King Yannai by Marta daughter of Baitus in order that Yehoshua ben Gamla should be appointed as Cohen Gadol.” The result was that the Cohanim Gadolim were not spiritually worthy of their position, and having entered the Holy of Holies in an unfit state would not survive a year in office.

Splendour is important when used as a tool for giving honour and glory to G-d. When it becomes the goal and the object of desire, rather than a means for spiritual elevation, it is degrading and brings tragedy in its wake.

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